I first began to identify as a feminist at the age of twenty. As a teenager I came into contact with feminist ideas from reading novels like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and plays such as Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, but I didn’t yet realise that I could be a feminist or that I could contribute to this dialogue in some way. My relationship with feminism changed in 2001 when I stumbled across the Silver Moon Bookshop on Charing Cross Road and encountered my first literary, feminist space.
I think Silver Moon and the extensive selection of books it stocked altered my understanding of feminism, as it enabled me to connect what had been an abstract philosophy to a living movement which could potentially be a force for change. During this summer I visited the Silver Moon a number of times to buy novels and browse large art books, discovering the works of Judy Chicago and Georgia O’Keeffe in the process. Running my fingers along the spines I came across names of publishers I’d never heard of before such as The Feminist Press, Pandora Press, The Women’s Press and Virago. It was here I bought my first Virago title: The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler. I think as a newly identifying feminist I was drawn to the provocative title and plus it was the perfect reading material for the train to accompany my newly shaved head and pink Doc Martens!
Now, sixteen years later, my feminism is more often expressed in the petitions I share on social media than in my appearance, but reading feminist and women’s literature published by the presses I discovered at Silver Moon has remained a constant. I have also discovered a few more along the way including Honno Welsh Women’s Press when I moved to Wales. During a recent discussion hosted by The Women’s Equality Network Wales in partnership with Honno I began to think more about these different labels such as ‘feminist’ and ‘women’s’ and what they have come to represent in publishing.
At the end of the 1980s, not long after Honno was founded, Nicci Gerrard questioned feminist publishing’s narrow commitment to ‘books about feminism’ and suggested an increase in the publication of ‘books influenced by feminism.’ Fifteen years on Simone Murray asked: ‘[W]hen is a women’s press a Feminist Press?’ and ‘does a press’s feminism reside in its means or its ends?’ In 2014 Catherine Riley concluded that Virago’s takeover in 1995 by Little, Brown (now owned by the mainstream conglomerate Hachette Livre) means that they now ‘reach a wide audience’. She concludes that ‘Virago has certainly adapted its way of conveying feminist messages, but retains its quiet influence. This has kept it relevant, continuing the attempt to convey feminist politics through publishing’.
Therefore, is a press only a feminist press if all aspects of its operations are feminist-minded? And can this only be achieved if a press remains independent? Or is it the case that the ‘feminism’ resides in the output? But then should the output be solely about feminism or can it be more broadly influenced by feminism? Should feminist presses only be run by and publish women or is feminism actually a mind-set, an approach to be actioned by individuals of any gender? If a press is subsumed by a mainstream publisher is it a compromise or a progression? Although these questions are too vast to answer here they do reveal a complexity of purpose and thought which needs to be engaged with when discussing the future of women’s and feminist presses. Since the period of second-wave feminism – when many of these independent presses were first established – the publishing industry has changed dramatically and, as a result, presses like Honno are navigating a constantly shifting landscape whilst still trying to fulfil their key founding principles.
Honno can be labelled a women’s press because it publishes only women and even though not every title is explicitly about feminism Honno is certainly motivated by a feminist agenda. For example its commitment to publishing reprints of titles by women long out of print reintroduces the writings of our ‘literary foremothers’ to the reading community. This series highlights a distinct women’s canon and provides further evidence of a history of feminist consciousness pre-1970. Alongside its fiction list, Honno publishes biographies of women such as the Jewish writer from Wales Lily Tobias. Books like The Greatest Need reveal a history of female activism and creativity in Wales often hidden from view. As well as bringing to light Wales’ feminist history Honno also strives to document contemporary women campaigners. A good example is Honno’s recent anthology Here We Stand: a collection of interviews and articles which give an insight into modern issues, highlighting why the feminist movement is still relevant today.
Although not a physical bookshop like Silver Moon was, Honno has also created a feminist, literary space which can potentially be a force for a change. It puts forward an alternative historical narrative which reveals a rich seam of feminist thought and action in Wales. This strategy continues to raise the profile of female writings whilst curating a historical foundation on which Honno’s contemporary writers can build. In her article on Virago press, Catherine Riley decries ‘the relative lack of published work on the important phenomenon of feminist publishing.’ Therefore, as Honno celebrates its thirtieth birthday is it now time for their contribution to feminism in Wales to be fully evaluated?
Calista Williams recently completed her PhD on ‘The National Library of Wales and National Identity c.1840-1916’ which was assisted by an innovative collaboration between the Open University and the National Library of Wales. She is currently researching the lives of the women who used the National Library when it first opened in 1909. Calista is now a Lifelong Learning Humanities teacher at Aberystwyth University.
HONNO ARE CELEBRATING FEMINIST BOOK FORTNIGHT ON THE 20TH JUNE 2018, 6.30PM, AT THE BOOKSHOP, ABERYSTWYTH ARTS CENTRE.
 Nicci Gerrard, Into the Mainstream. How Feminism Has Changed Women’s Writing (London: Pandora Press, 1989), p.25.
 Simone Murray, ‘The Cuala Press: Women, publishing, and the conflicted genealogies of ‘feminist publishing’’, Women’s Studies International Forum, No.27 (2004), pp.489-506, pp.492-493.
 Catherine Riley, ‘‘The Message is in the Book’: What Virago’s Sale in 1995 Means for Feminist Publishing’, Women: A Cultural Review, Vol.25, No.3 (2014), pp.235-255, p.253.
 Cherie Kramarae and Dale Spender ‘Exploding Knowledge’ in Kramarae and Spender (eds.), The Knowledge Explosion. Generations of Feminst Scholarship (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992), pp.1-26, p.18.
 Riley, ‘‘The Message is in the Book’, p.236.